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Atlantic City Strike Enters Fourth Day; Hotels Closing Guest Room Floors, Not Able to Provide Housekeeping and Other Services
By Jacqueline L. Urgo Inquirer Staff Writer
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

ATLANTIC CITY, October 4, 2004 - As the strike between 10,000 casino-hotel union members and seven of the city's 12 gaming halls enters its fourth day today - the longest strike in the resort's casino history - many are beginning to wonder just how long it will last.

And how much the standoff will end up costing.

As the state's largest private employer, Atlantic City's casino industry plays a vital role in New Jersey's economy. The industry directly employs about 45,000, and an estimated 30,000 more jobs in the state are directly tied to the casinos, according to the state Labor Department.

The casino industry pumped $2.3 billion worth of business to about 2,600 companies in the state last year, New Jersey officials said.

"A lengthy strike would be devastating, not just to the Atlantic City casinos and their workers but also to the entire region, because so many other industries and jobs are directly tied to the casino industry," said State Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), chairman of the state Senate Labor Committee.

No new talks have been scheduled between the union - Local 54 of Unite Here - and casino negotiators. After its contract expired Sept. 14, the union imposed an Oct. 1 strike deadline if a contract was not settled.

The sides appeared deadlocked on three key issues. The union wants fully paid health-care benefits to continue, while the casinos want employees to share the costs; it wants casinos to limit the use of nonunion subcontracted employees in new ventures; and it wants a three-year contract rather than the five-year pact offered by the casinos.

At 6 a.m. Friday, union members walked off the job at the Atlantic City Hilton, Bally's Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah's Atlantic City, Resorts Atlantic City, the Showboat Casino-Hotel, and the Tropicana Casino Resort.

Five casinos - including the three Trump hotels and casino resorts and the Sands Casino Hotel - were spared a strike by a tentative settlement reached just before the deadline late Thursday.

The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa is not part of the job action because its union contract does not expire until 2007.

As pickets proffered their message to passersby on the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue all weekend, it was unclear yesterday just how much revenue the seven casinos had lost - or gained - during the strike.

Two of the seven answered calls for comment and said their gaming halls had been busy and profitable all weekend. They would not provide specific numbers.

And while there was not a hotel room to be had at any of Atlantic City's 12 casinos this weekend, part of the reason was that some of the properties limited the number of rooms they were offering.

Noncasino hotels, including the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel, had plenty of rooms Friday and Saturday nights.

Some casino hotels offered rooms only to "high roller" guests and members of their player-incentive programs. Others closed entire hotel floors because there was not enough staff to provide housekeeping and other services.

Paper plates replaced china in some restaurants, and room service was out of the question.

But everyone from managers to secretaries to executive staff members was making a great showing of efforts to pitch in.

David Jonas, vice president of Atlantic City operations for Harrah's Entertainment Inc., tended bar and had been seen trying to take ice water to pickets Saturday.

At Tropicana yesterday, Dennis Gomes, president of the casino's parent company, Aztar Corp., cleaned toilets and made beds, said Maureen Simen, a Tropicana spokeswoman.

Tropicana's 1,625 rooms had been open to guests over the weekend because everyone from Gomes down to the casino's nonunion staff members were working 12-hour shifts, Simen said.

To relieve those workers and "get things back to normal," Tropicana is scheduled to bring in a cleaning firm today to take over housekeeping during the strike.

Other casinos flew in workers from their other properties to perform housekeeping, kitchen and laundry services.

Each casino seemed to have its own strategy for feeding guests. Some kept buffets open while others closed buffets and coffee shops and kept only their full-service restaurants operating.

Union officials said yesterday that they were not hopeful a settlement would be reached quickly.

"It's going to be tough on people, but our members are geared up for the long haul," said Chris Magoulas, a spokesman for Local 54, which represents 14,500 casino workers - bartenders, cooks, cocktail waitresses, housekeepers and other service positions - in Atlantic City and about 250,000 workers worldwide. "They are ready to do whatever they have to do to see that a fair settlement is reached."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or [email protected]

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